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Journal from Spain: The Marvel of Co-existence

Greenies_0811_SegoviaI spent a couple of weeks in Spain this summer, my first visit. With a few broken Spanish words, many hand signals, and a lot of smiles, I survived. In the end, I had a lot of fun and an unforgettable experience. In the next few weeks, I would like to share some of the highlights with you.

Spain, like many European countries, evolved under the influence of many different cultures. These cultures, together with their religious beliefs, formed the fabric of Spain. Over the past 2000 years, Spain was ruled by the Romans, the Moors (Muslims), and the Visigoth tribes from the north (Christians). For most of this time Jews also played a major role in Iberian culture. What strikes me the most about Spanish history is that despite all of the wars and conflicts over time, these cultures and religions coexisted, creating a melting pot that is uniquely Spain.

Roman influence is best represented by the remains of the aqueduct in Segovia, a city northeast of Madrid. The aqueduct delivered water to cities from surrounding mountains. A large section of the structure still stands today, high above the many modern cafes that surround it. Despite the decline of the Roman Empire, Roman architecture remained influential in Spain for centuries.

Greenies_0811_CordobaThe Mezquita, or Great Mosque, is one of the largest medieval mosques remaining in the world today. Located in Cordoba, the old Roman and Islamic capital city south of Madrid, this mosque is an architectural masterpiece showcasing the many cultures that made up Spain's melting pot over the centuries.

Muslim builders began construction of the Mezquita in the 8th century, after a successful invasion of the Iberian Peninsula. The mosque is massive, covering more than 250,000 square feet. However, its most prominent feature is its network of columns and arches that extends throughout its many halls. By using the same Roman engineering techniques as the aqueduct found in Segovia, the mosque's builders created arches that have successfully supported a giant stone structure more than a thousand years.

Perhaps even more extraordinary than the engineering, the architectural features of the Great Mosque represent hundreds of years of Roman, Visigothic, and Muslim art. The Mezquita's builders incorporated past art and decoration into the mosque's columns and their capitals by salvaging and recycling materials from previous Roman and Visigothic structures. As a result, the Mezquita stands today as a living time capsule containing art and architecture from the many different cultures of Spain.

By the end of the 15th century a Catholic monarchy reigned supreme on the Iberian Peninsula. Muslims and Jews were forced to leave as the monarchy began a campaign for religious purity in their kingdom. Ultimately, the Mezquita was saved from demolition and Christians built a cathedral inside the mosque, leaving fifteen centuries of history condensed into this one building.

Greenies_0811_SevilleUnder Catholic rule, religious tolerance ended in Spain. Many of the Moorish mosques were demolished or converted into churches. However, Christians did not completely abandon Moorish style. Rather, Muslim art forms were reinterpreted and presented in Catholic structures. For example, the Royal Chapel in Seville, converted from an existing mosque, had its bell tower built on top of the mosque's minaret.

This long history of Catholics and Moors existing side by side helped to create a unique style -- the Mudejar style. Mudejar architecture combines Moorish geometric patterns, horseshoe arches, tile and brickwork with Catholic buildings, thus creating a distinctive Spanish style that continued to influence artistic movements for centuries after the decline and fall of previous empires.

Melting pot, a metaphor for a heterogeneous society becoming more homogeneous, the different elements "melting together" into a harmonious whole with a common culture (source: Wikipedia). Can we learn something here?